To anyone who has closely followed the career of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's current president, the man's love of soccer and his dream of having a team of his own are quite well known. In recent months in casual conversations with Al-Monitor, sources close to the presidential palace floated the idea of the presidency fielding a professional team. On Feb. 6, such talk appeared to become a reality, with sports pages reporting on the founding of the Presidency Sports Club (Cumhurbaskanligi Spor).
The Turkish Confederation of Amateur Sports Clubs confirmed the news, and the website of the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) listed the club as a member, with its first match scheduled against Justice Sport (Adaletspor) in mid-March. The team's official colors were identified as red, white and turquoise, and practices were to be held on the palace grounds. Alas, President Erdogan’s dream of a team of his own was only short lived.
In less than 24 hours, unidentified presidential sources denied the previous reports. Websites supporting Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) immediately deleted stories about the team, and the TFF scratched the team's name. Abdurrahman Dilipak, prominent columnist for the Islamist daily Yeni Safak, took delight in no such team being established. The public ridicule was simply too great.
Interested observers wondered what would happen if fans booed Presidency or hurled slurs against it or if the club irritated hooligans easily prone to violence. How could a team bearing the president's colors, emblem and office find a fan base in a league where allegiance to a team is for life and passed down in families from fathers to sons across generations?
In Turkey, as in many other European and Middle Eastern countries, soccer has long been a national pastime, especially among men, though not exclusively. Since 2014, however, Turkish soccer fans have had to deal with drawbacks to viewing matches live after the introduction of Passolig, an e-ticketing system that allows the government to monitor fans, restricts attendance to certain clubs and is a cash cow for the Erdogan family and the AKP.
One publication described the Passolig system as “ripping the soul out of Turkish soccer,” which is exactly what it did. In less than five years, the number of fans buying tickets has dwindled so much that once-prominent teams have gone bankrupt and need government assistance to survive. Yet, the prospect of a presidential team invigorated fans to take to social media and prognosticate about what might have been.
In one video, a referee scores a goal for the president's team and then issues a red card to an opponent who dares to complain. In a clip from the movie “Dictator” (2012), starring the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, the main character shoots his competitors during a sprint race in which the finish line is ultimately brought to him. There were also clips from Turkish movies in which victory is guaranteed for the ruler. Mostly people debated the fate of any referee making a call against the presidential team or an opponent who scored against it? Would they be penalized as terrorists? Gulenist supporters? How much jail time would they get?
Atilla Sertel, a member of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, opened a parliamentary line of inquiry, raising questions about the team’s financial resources and players. Sertel wondered whether a presidency anywhere else in the world had officially founded a team.
The Presidency club is not Erdogan's first foray into “sports management.” During a televised interview on Feb. 4, he remarked, “I am proud of Basaksehir [an Istanbul team] because I established the team when I was the mayor of Istanbul.” A previous Istanbul mayor, Nurettin Sozen, countered that in fact he had established the city's official team — Istanbul Buyuksehir Belediyesi Futbol (Istanbul City Municipality Soccer Club) — in 1990 and that Erdogan had merely changed the name.
In any case, Erdogan’s endorsement is beneficial for any soccer team these days. At a time when most teams are on the brink of bankruptcy, Basaksehir has a sizable number of sponsors to the point of inviting scrutiny of its unexplained wealth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, several AKP politicians and affiliated businesses are closely linked to the team's management.
A soccer fan who has studied the politics of the game for two decades told Al-Monitor, “If the presidential team goes ahead, it will greatly resemble Basaksehir. Basaksehir is what we call a joke team, with a maximum of 3,000 fans. Even though fans are bused to games for free, and their meals are provided, not many people are interested in watching their matches. Love of the game is not something you can buy.”
The fan, who requested anonymity, added, “There is growing disdain toward the Basaksehir soccer team, and a Presidency team would be worse. In Istanbul, there are already three major soccer teams. If it were not for government support, Basaksehir would have never made it to the top league. Political involvement in soccer just fuels dissent among soccer fans.”
The relationships among soccer, the media and politics is “interesting” in Turkey. For example, on Feb. 13, the winning bid to operate IDDAA [Turkey’s only legal sports betting company] was submitted by a venture including Yildirim Demiroren, who just happens to be the chairman of TFF. Since April 2018, Demiroren has also owned Turkey’s largest media company. The IDDAA tender has come under scrutiny, but there is no reason to expect the decision on it to change. Even if Demiroren were to resign his position with TFF, the lucrative world of soccer would remain intertwined with media and gambling regardless of FIFA regulations.
Although the palace quietly denied the creation of the Presidency club, Erdogan himself has made no comment. No one has been accused of creating a fake team, and none of Erdogan’s advisers or spokespersons has denounced the reports as fake news. It is probably safe to assume that the idea of a team is not yet dead and buried. Rather, Erdogan probably decided to wait until after local elections, scheduled for March 31, and for a sports-betting scandal to disappear from the headlines. This fits with his pattern of prepping the public by testing the waters when it comes to controversial issues.
It remains unclear whether support for a Presidency club would be decreed a national obligation. Erdogan has not made a public appearance at a soccer match since being booed at a major game in 2011. Given his love of the game, surely he misses being in the stands. Having a team of his own, and watching it play on his own pitch, could help turn those boos into a distant memory.
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